April 11-17, 2007

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First Bite

The General's Daughter

By Amanda Yskamp

At the General's Daughter you're treated like Daddy's favorite, pampered and indulged. From the moment you enter the 130-year-old Victorian manse General Vallejo gave to his daughter Natalia after ceding Sonoma in a brandy-soaked breakfast conference, the gracious dining rooms welcome you like the precious darling you are.

Adding to the feeling of indulgence is carte blanche permission to assemble your three-, four- and five-course prix fixe menu ($45, $55 and $65, respectively) as your little heart desires. All dishes demonstrate chef Preston Dishman's French training and Southern roots, with attention to the best local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients. A recent partnership with Benziger Family Winery promises that 90 percent of the restaurant's produce will come from Benziger's biodynamic gardens.

Before our choices came, we were served an amuse-bouche that proved the least amusing dish of the evening--a thimbleful of green garlic soup that tasted mostly of salt. My friend Michael picked foie gras as his beginner (though, believe me, I tried to dissuade him). Seared on an island of polenta with dollops of rhubarb compote, it was, he said, delicious, though the creaminess of the elements became a bit monotonous. I had tuna tartare with spicy aioli hearts of palm, and marinated cucumbers: a haute tuna fish salad.

We'd also exercised our choice to not choose, ordering the three-ounce wine pairings ($19, $24 and $29 for three, four or five courses, respectively), all, without exception, well-chosen complements to our food. If you care to select your own wine, the list features mostly young and Californian wines.

Round two brought a Dungeness crab cake, an expert treatment of the standard, and scallops, all two of them, perfectly cooked, on a cauliflower purée, encircled by a moat of ginger carrot foam. A spoon would have been nice, but I made do with bread, served tong-wise (as is irritatingly au courant). When I asked for one of each breads, the server crooned, "Excellent choice." I noticed Michael received the exact same praise, although he requested only whole wheat. Maybe we were both the favorite.

The servers swarmed around our table, knowledgeable, helpful, nearly coddling. The exception? The fellow who greeted us as ladies. When I corrected him, he recovered by saying that Michael has fabulous hair (which he does, curls down to his shoulders). But when he came back and asked again how we "ladies" were doing, it rankled.

Next up was duck Bolognese pasta, a savory mélange of shredded duck topped with herb ricotta, and an order of spice-rubbed venison loin--like butter and incredibly yummy on a bed of wilted chard and sweet potato purée.

Though each course had seemed small, we were pretty full by dessert, a dense bittersweet chocolate cake, topped with salted caramel cream and pistachio brittle. I loved it; Michael objected to the salt. To each his (or her) own, which just might be the motto of this fine restaurant.

The General's Daughter, 400 W. Spain St., Sonoma. Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. 707.938.4004.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.